Olympic Champion Nadia Comaneci
Young Athlete, August 1978 On November 12, 1961, in the Rumanian town of Onesti, near the rugged Carpathian Mountains, a little girl was born to Stefania and Gheorghe Comaneci. The proud young parents named their daughter Nadia, never guessing that, in just 14 years, her name would become part of the sports vocabulary of every language in the world.
Nadia. Like most young girls, she enjoyed playing games with her friends. Not surprisingly, the game she liked most was gymnastics.
One day, the Rumanian gymnastics coach, Bela Karolyi, happened to see six-year-old Nadia at play. Like a leaf in the wind, she darted and twisted and leaped before his eyes. So impressed was Karolyi with Nadia's natural ability that he later contacted her school and asked her if she would like to pursue gymnastics more seriously. "Yes," spoke the little elf. And so began one of the most phenomenal stories in the history of sport.
A year later, Karolyi entered Nadia in the Rumanian Junior Nationals. The youngest competitor ever, Nadia struggled valiantly, only to finish 13th. Karolyi wasn't discouraged. Instead, he gave his protege a special "good luck" Eskimo doll, assuring her that "you'll do better next time."
Twelve months later, 1970, with her Eskimo doll watching from the sidelines, Nadia won the Rumanian Junior title. From that point on, the gold medals came quickly.
July, 1976. There was electricity in the air as 86,000 fans -- some paying $200 a ticket -- squeezed into the Montreal Forum to catch a glimpse of the 5-foot, 86-pound wonder-child. When the Games had ended, Nadia had achieved the "impossible" -- seven 10.0 scores! The electronic scoreboard, built to score mere human performances, could only show a high score of 9.99, so Nadia's perfection had to be posted as 1.00. When the roar of the crowd had finally settled down to excited whispers, one question remained on everyone's mind: "Who is this little girl who reels off perfect scores with ease?"
Those closest to Nadia say she has "a positive tendency to be aggressive, challenging a routine where the less bold hesitate." Physically she is described as "strong, fast and flexible." Mentally, she's "intelligent, with a keen ability to concentrate." But perhaps the most important of all, "she has courage, so much courage!"
Did she think she would win in Montreal? "Yes, I was sure," she says. "I knew it all along, if I worked very hard and persevered, I just might make it. What I have done gives me fantastic joy."
One goal, however, still eludes her -- a goal she is striving to achieve in the near future. "I would like to get perfect scores in every event in a single competition. That is my final goal."
There is much more to this special athlete, whose rare smile reminds us that, despite all the perfect scores and gold medals, she is still a young girl of 16. Young Athlete caught up with her during the Rumanian team's U.S. tour last year. Struggling with the English language, here's what she had to say about herself, her sport and her future.
YA: Nadia, do you feel you've missed the fun times of growing up with your friends, since you dedicated yourself to gymnastics?
NC: No. Gymnastics is my life and I love it. I have fun with my gymnastics friends. Teodora and I, and my other teammates, often play together.
YA: How do the Rumanian boys react to you? Do they ever ask for dates?
NC: No. I'm too busy for dates. There is no time.
YA: Well, then, maybe you could tell us about your family life.
NC: I live in Onesti with my momma, poppa, and younger brother, Adrian. My poppa works in an auto shop, and my momma sometimes works in an office.
YA: What do they think of your success?
NC: My parents are very proud of me, especially for the honor I am able to bring to my country. My brother, Adrian, is my best fan.
YA: Do you go to school in Onesti?
NC: Yes, I'm in the ninth grade at the Onesti Sports High School.
YA: How are you doing?
NC: Well, my favorite subjects are French, English and Rumanian culture. But I work hard at everything. I want to do well. I get mostly nines (maximum 10) or better.
YA: Describe your daily routine for us.
NC: I wake up early to go to school. All my classes are in the morning. Then, in the afternoon I rest for a while, until it is time for training. I practice for three hours, sometimes more; then I must study. My day is always full.
YA: Is there ever time to relax?
NC: I enjoy what I do. That's how I relax.
YA: But how do you spend your free time?
NC: Oh, I like to play other sports. Especially swimming, and in the summer, water skiing; soccer, too, just running with my friends.
YA: There must be some quiet moments, when you just want to be alone.
NC: Yes. I play with my dolls then. I have many from each part of the world. My favorite doll is from Montreal; another is from my coach when I was first starting. It's also fun to save stamps from the mail. Then, when I am with my friends, we enjoy listening to music.
YA: Nadia, you are just 16 years old, yet you are a world and Olympic champion. How did it all start?
NC: As far back as I can remember, I liked to run and jump and climb trees. When I was six years old and in kindergarten, Coach Bela Karolyi was at my school, looking for girls to train. I did not know he had seen me until later, when he came to my class and found me.
YA: What happened then?
NC: We were given a test. We ran a short distance, did a jump, then walked on a balance beam.
YA: At age six, you must have been afraid walking way up on the balance beam.
NC: No, I was not afraid. Even today that is not a problem for me. I never think of danger.
YA: So you did well on this early test?
NC: Yes. Coach Karolyi and his wife, Marta, started working with me then. They are still my coaches today. I do what they tell me. I enjoy working for them. When I was seven, I had my first competition; and at eight, I won the Rumanian junior championships. That was my first big victory.
YA: Since then, you have won many competitions. Does it come easy for you?
NC: It gives me great pleasure to work hard. I give myself much practice. I repeat things over and over, until each detail is part of me. Coach Karolyi says much competition is good for young girls. Competition makes you at ease with this experience.
YA: Are you always at ease? Don't you feel tension during competition?
NC: There is no tension, because I am well prepared for each exercise. Coach Karolyi and I have gone over the moves hundreds of times. When I approach the equipment, I am busy concentrating on what I'm doing. I am too busy to be tense.
YA: Does a burst of applause, or a cheer from the crowd, affect your performance?
NC: I never hear such things while I'm competing. It is as if I am alone with the equipment. Before I start the exercise, I review in my head each combination; only then do I begin.
YA: What about the presence of other great gymnasts, such as Nelli Kim. Does that bother you?
NC: I'm only aware of myself. Even my teammates' performance sometimes go unnoticed.
YA: At 5' 3" you are fairly close to the ground. Is size an important factor for a gymnast?
NC: Being too short, or too tall, would be a problem. Now I am a little bigger than before. I'm growing, so naturally we have adjusted my routine. It will be okay.
YA: If you had to choose the most important quality for a gymnast to have, what would it be? Strength? Speed? Coordination?
NC: No, no. You cannot choose. All are required. One without the other would be useless. If you are weak in anything, you must work to strengthen it.
YA: Nadia, you certainly show great ability, and have achieved great success. How important has coaching been to all this?
NC: For me, Coach Karolyi and his wife have been very important. I believe coaching to be equally important with one's ability; and I have had the best possible. We not only train at the school, but before important competitions we all go to a special camp, where there are many special coaches for gymnastics.
YA: Is this where you develop your fantastic routines?
NC: Coach Karolyi is in charge. He designs the combinations that are best for me. We always try new things. It is the way to be ahead. I am not afraid to try anything he wants.
YA: How long should a girl expect to train before becoming competitive?
NC: It varies. In my case, it took only two years to be Rumanian junior champion. Other girls never make it. This is not something one can predict. Just being competitive is not enough. I work always to be better. To do something new.
YA: You have been awarded more perfect scores than anyone in gymnastics. Do you feel that you deserved all those 10's?
NC: I am not a judge. Only they can see what I am doing. But I have had perfect scores before the Olympics, and I will have more in the future. I work with great seriousness.
YA: Who do you think will be your major competition during the 1980 Moscow Olympics?
NC: I do not know who will be there. I will work to be at my best. Then it will not matter who is there.
YA: Your exciting routines have been enjoyed by thousands around the world during exhibition tours, such as the one sponsored by the United States Gymnastics Federation. Do you enjoy these tours?
NC: It is nice to travel, but one always loves home best. Sometimes the traveling is tiring. We just came from Mexico, and now we are in your country. But the American audiences are very appreciating and that makes it nice. I also enjoyed my visit to Disneyland. You have good ice cream.
YA: Must you watch your diet?
NC: My diet is very strict. My momma is a good cook, and at training camp our food is specially selected. I eat lots of fruits and vegetables; but every now and then, I do sneak some ice cream.
YA: At this point in your career, what have your achievements meant to you, personally?
NC: Only that I took my talents and used them as best I could.
YA: Is there one particular event that you would like to be remembered for?
NC: The beam, I think. It is the most challenging.
YA: Finally, Nadia, what is your advice to other girls who would like to excel in gymnastics?
NC: First, remember there is no room for fear in gymnastics; second, be prepared for hard work. Working hard is the only difference between being good and being the best.
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